TRAVERSE CITY — Citizens need not fear being shushed at Grand Traverse County commission meetings.
County officials agreed to amend their public comment rules as part of a settlement agreement reached this week with Traverse City resident Ann Laurence. Laurence sued the county board for violating Michigan’s Open Meetings Act after board Chair Herb Lemcool cut public comments short during a contentious budget meeting late last year.
The amended county rules state neither the chairperson nor the board shall end public comment at meetings “until each and every member of the public” who wants to speak “has a full and fair opportunity to do so,” court records state.
Laurence, the wife of Traverse City Commissioner and former county Commissioner Ross Richardson, said she’s happy with the settlement.
“The county didn’t protract the arguments, and I think all parties are well-served and the future is well-served,” Laurence said. “These issues should never happen again.”
County officials also agreed to pay $2,200 toward Laurence’s costs and fees related to the lawsuit, according to a copy of the settlement agreement.
Laurence filed a complaint in 13th Circuit Court after Lemcool said he intended to limit an opening public comment session of a heavily attended November budget meeting to 15 minutes. He also asked each speaker to limit their comments to one minute.
Lemcool did not return a call for comment.
Laurence’s attorney Philip Ellison, of Hemlock, said Laurence sought the board rule amendments when she initially filed the lawsuit.
“The original civil counsel through their prosecutor’s office, they would not agree to that before, but after their insurance counsel came on board, apparently he thought it was a good idea,” Ellison said.
Officials from the county prosecutor’s office referred comment to Haider Kazim, a Traverse City-based attorney who represented the county in the lawsuit.
Kazim could not be reached for comment.
Ellison gave the county board “some credit” for reaching the settlement. He said many local units of government will “fight tooth-and-nail” against Open Meetings Act lawsuits.
“It took a little bit of time, but I do give them credit for acknowledging there are better ways to support the public by admitting they made a mistake, fixing it and moving on,” he said.